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Drug Abuse: Symptoms to Look for in a Loved One

Joanne Helperin

In November 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General sounded the alarm about our country's frightening substance abuse problem, which runs across every strata of society: One out of every seven Americans will face a substance addiction. Heroin and opiates alone kill an American every 19 minutes.

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Not every drug user suffers from addiction. Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addiction actually changes a person's brain structure and function. So while drug use may start voluntarily, a true addict shouldn't be faulted for a lack of morals or willpower.

Drug use even at "mild" or "moderate" levels has the potential to cause serious problems down the road.

"If you have a loved one you know is using drugs, you should talk about it with them. They may be able to stop if they choose to," said Ze'ev Korn, LCSW and psychotherapist with UCLA's Behavioral Health Associates. "If you're concerned that they may be addicted, but they deny it, ask them if they'd be willing to go two weeks without using the drugs. If they say they want to stop, but don't, it's possible that they can't."

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Before you have that conversation, check for the warning signs of drug abuse:
  • Family history: Genetic risk factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop an addiction.
  • Neglecting activities they like, including socializing, exercising, or hobbies
  • Poor performance at work or falling school grades, disinterest in or missing days of work or school
  • Trouble with the law
  • Acting out against family, co-workers, teachers, or classmates
  • Secrecy about where they spend time or who they are with; keeping their bedroom off limits
  • Lack of energy and motivation
  • Serious changes or deterioration in hygiene or physical appearance, such as lack of showering or wearing dirty clothes
  • The need for more money, more frequently. Missing or stolen money or objects from the home.
  • Mood swings
  • Red or glassy eyes
  • Sniffing, runny nose
  • Change in eating or sleeping habits
  • Change in peer group
  • Isolating oneself
  • Withdrawal signs such as anxiety or jumpiness, trembling, sweating, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, depression, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite and headaches
  • Increased prescription drug consumption or tolerance, despite experiencing negative consequences
  • Engaging in sexual activity or other risky behaviors in order to obtain drugs
Each category of drug – both legal and otherwise – has its own particular set of warnings signs. The Mayo Clinic and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence have detailed lists of what to look for. The US Drug Enforcement Administration also has extremely helpful drug fact sheets that specify the effects of each type of drug, their "street names," and even photos.

A doctor or trained professional can conduct a routine screening for substance abuse to identify early signs of trouble. If the screening is positive, a comprehensive evaluation can make a determination of abuse or addiction. The doctor may decide on a "brief intervention" with a specialized counselor if the problem isn't too far along, or for more serious cases, make referrals to treatment centers. You can also locate treatment facilities by using the Federal government's behavioral health treatment services locator or on YP.com.

If you learn that your loved one has a drug problem, you can find help and support by attending meetings at Nar-Anon (not to be confused with Narcanon, based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard). There is also a tremendous amount of help and information online. Check out the Step-by-Step Guides at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Joanne Helperin is a Los Angeles-based writer/editor and marketer. Dubbed "The Research Queen" by friends and family, she’s known for leaving no stone unturned in her pursuit of stories on health, business, news, technology, and lifestyle. She has written for digital, print and broadcast for more than 20 years.
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